It’s Wednesday evening, and you’re packing up some books and notes to take over to a friend’s apartment. You have different majors, but you are both in the same section of a required course – and tomorrow is one of two exams given during the semester; your grade on the exam will count towards 40 percent of your final grade in the course.
For you, the course is not so hard, but your friend is really struggling. You’ve promised to help her study this evening; you both need to get a good grade on the exam and in the course to keep your grade point average at the level required for your scholarships.
Just as you’re walking out the door to go to your friend’s apartment, a good friend calls you up and says that he and some of your buddies are at the local pizza place, having dinner and some beers. They’d really like you to come on over, in part because you owe them a round or two of drinks from the last time you got together. What do you do?
1. Utilitarianism Most students in my experience approach this sort of problem in a consequentialist – perhaps even a utilitarian – way. That is, they will begin to figure out the costs and benefits of (1) turning down their buddies for pizza and beer, vs. the costs and benefits of (2) fulfilling the promise to help a friend study. One of the chief advantages of this approach is that we can set up a handy table to help us keep track of the positives and negatives. An initial analysis of our choices might look like the table on.
But, of course, there are additional positive and negative consequences of our choices that may seem relevant to our decision: e.g., if I help my friend, she will do better on her exam (and, most likely, so will I); if I go to have pizza and beer, I will certainly have a good time this evening but probably not do so well tomorrow in the exam. If we think further down the road, it may be that doing well in this exam will turn out to be a “make-or-break” event with regard to our success in the course:
that is, should we both do well, we might subsequently end up with a better grade in the course; but, if we don’t, then we might end up with less of a grade than we need in order to maintain our grade point averages for our scholarships, etc. The possible consequences even further down the road might be enormous – ranging from doing well in school more generally, moving on to a good job, etc., to (worst-case scenario) losing needed scholarships, thereby being unable to complete school, thereby failing to be able to find a good and satisfying job, etc.
You get the point. For the consequentialist, the game of ethics is about trying to think through possible good and bad consequences of possible acts, and then weighing them against one another to determine which act will generate the more positive outcome(s).